Were you a youngster who was obsessed with the Golden Girls and the Guardians of the Gemstones toys, and did you long for one of those National Geographic rock tumbler kits? As an adult, did you fall wistfully in love with the colorful whimsy of Steven Universe and his staunch protectors, Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst?
When visiting a natural history museum, do you make a beeline for the glittering treasures of the gem and mineral rooms? Is Splendor your favorite board game because you love hoarding the jewels like a greedy dragon, and truly you don’t give a fart about the mechanics and strategies of gem mines, trade routes, or gaining wealthy patrons? Is that too niche a reference? Are you still with me?
Have you ever gazed into a stone and wondered as to the stories it stores? The powers it possesses? In her fascinating book, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, Hettie Judah explores the hidden history of these lithic marvels, from their role in ancient cultures to their modern-day influences and uses.
An absolute feast for the senses, the book itself feels very much like a collector’s treasure hoarded wunderkammer of mythic and mysterious curiosities. It is split into six sections (Stones and Power, Sacred Stones, Stones and Stories, Stone Technology, Shapes in Stone, and Living Stones), and each section reveals a chapter devoted to unearthing an individual stone with imaginative, artful descriptions and a pretty wild, or wildly fascinating story connected to each stone.
It’s a stunningly presented and designed book, with color-coordinated pictures and beautiful illustrations by artist Nicky Pasterfield for each stone, evoking the charming pictures in old geological and scientific publications.
Referencing science, history, chemistry, physics, literature, philosophy, and pop culture, Lapidarium is an extravagantly storied chamber of stones, the next best thing to having a secret sparkling cache of curios at your fingertips. Writing with humor, compassion, and wit (I cackled out loud more times than I can count), Hettie leads us sure-footedly on our craggy journey down a glittering path of 60 mineralogical eccentricities, ancient souvenirs of deep-Earth drama, and travelogues that cross the strata of time as well as space.
Amongst these essays exploring how human culture has formed stone and, conversely, the roles stone has played in forming human culture, one will read of the Meat-Shaped Stone of Taiwan, a piece of banded jasper that resembles a tender piece of mouth-watering braised pork belly, There is the soap opera melodrama of Pele’s Hair, golden strands of volcanic glass, spun into hair-fine threads by volcanic gasses and blown across the landscape. And not to mention the hysterical metaphysical WTFery of angel-appointed wife swaps in the chapter of alchemist and astrologer John Dee’s smoky quartz cairngorm, as well as, the mystical modern-day TikTik moldavite craze vibing amongst those of the witchy-psychic persuasion. I cannot even tell you how many times I paused in my reading to open a new Google tab and research, thinking, “holy fake crystal skulls/malachite caskets/pyroclastic flow rap lyrics! I gotta learn more about this!”
From the elegance of emerald moons to humble fossilized feces, from violent lunar origin stories to simple earthen pigments, Lapidarium is richly abundant with interesting facts, poignant stories, and weird anecdotes about stones. And though I read this book straight through from start to finish, this is absolutely the sort of bibliomantic tome that one might flip through at random, choosing a chapter based on mood or whim: learn a weird rock fact, let it lodge in your brain like a wayward pebble in your shoe, and allow it to guide your energies for the day.
After finishing Lapidarium, I realized I could have happily spent loads more time in the terrestrial spectacle of those enigmatic realms, but once you get to the acknowledgments, that’s pretty much the end of the line (I read them all, anyway!) Not yet ready to leave this post-book mental space now lit crystalline and glittering with the fruits of the earth thanks to Hettie’s heady prose, I thought I might ask the author and art historian a few questions–which she kindly answered for me, below.
Unquiet Things: I’m curious whether you started this book with a favorite gem or stone in mind, but after your research and writing, you perhaps had some markedly different favorites.
Hettie Judah: I guess when I started, I was thinking more in terms of stone objects and artefacts – I’d probably have told you my favourite stone was a black opal from Lightning Ridge in Australia. In working on the book I became more interested in the way stone forms not only landscape, but the cultural expression that has played out within that landscape – whether that’s the standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge, most of which are huge sarsens that used to lie around that landscape like flocks of sheep, or the marble of Paros and Naxos that established a specific aesthetic for temple building in Ancient Greece. When people ask me my favourite stone I usually tell them it’s the limestone under the Yorkshire Dales, a beloved piece of the British landscape – beauty of a different order to that of a ruby or moonstone.
Unquiet Things: In the vein of your research, what was one of the most surprising or strangest things you learned while digging into mineralogical science, history, legend, and lore?
Hettie Judah: The quest for the mythic philosopher’s stone crops up in a few different stories in the book. Alchemists got up to some pungent activities – Paracelsus suggested you could grow a human being by ‘placing’ semen in a flask, then burying the flask in a pile of warm horse manure and, after a set period, feeding it with a specially treated form of blood. The alchemical language of proto-chemistry was very much one of sexual intercourse – the male element reacting with the female element to produce a new substance – some of the language we use today still derives from these ideas. We talk about finding a crystal in a rock ‘matrix’ – as though the plain old ‘mother rock’ had given birth to a gemstone.
I love the legend of the Indian Valley of the Diamonds, said to be an inaccessible crevasse, the floor of which glittered with gemstones. Diamonds are lipophilic – they stick to fat. So the legend went that gem hunters would lob pieces of fatty raw lamb into the valley, and eagles would swoop down to pick them up and fly back up to their nests with gems embedded in the fat. The eagles would eat the meat, leaving the diamonds, which the gem hunters later retrieved. The legend was so well established that the symbol for India on European maps used to be the eagles carrying diamonds up from the valley.
Unquiet Things: There were many times I found myself giggling at a playful turn of phrase or peculiar fact while reading; there’s nothing I appreciate so much as learning and laughing at the same time. Looking back, is there a particularly weird or wacky excerpt, sentence, or even an entire paragraph that you find yourself thinking, “Well, I never imagined that was a thing I’d write about rocks!”
Hettie Judah: The early 19th-century geologist and theologian William Buckland was a magnificent source of wild stories – he was zoophagous, and apparently attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom (and once authoritatively identified bat dung by taste). He was also fascinated by coprolites – petrified poo – and commissioned a decorative pietra dura tabletop to be made from his collection of fossilised fish turds.
I was determined to get kryptonite into the book – how can you have a collection of stories about stones without one on kryptonite? My editor was adamant that I couldn’t include it because it wasn’t ‘real’. So finding a great story about moldavite – basically ‘real’ kryptonite – was such a gift. I really enjoyed writing that one.
Overall, in every facet, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones is a brilliant must-have for anyone who has ever been fascinated by stones, either as a child or as an adult today. And as it happens…I have an extra copy of Lapidarium and am happy to share it with one reader of this blog post.
Not that I believe you need any convincing at this point, but …
💎 If you love stones, then this book is a treasure trove of information about all sorts of stones, from their scientific properties to their cultural significance.
💎 If you’re interested in history, then you’ll love learning about the role that stones have played in human cultures throughout the ages.
💎If you’re looking for a book that will transport you to far-off lands, Hettie’s stories will take you to the mountains of Appalachia, the beaches of South Wales, the caves of Mexico, Russian palaces, and Brazilian churches–and everywhere between and beyond.
💎 If you’re longing for writing that will make you think, you will enjoy pondering the author’s explorations of the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of stones, and our relationship to the natural world.
If you would like to win this copy of Lapidarium, please leave a comment in today’s blog post with your favorite stone or “rock fact,” and I will choose one winner from amongst those comments on Friday, August 18th. Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is limited to US readers only.
[THE GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED AND THE WINNERS–DARLA AND HAYLEY– HAVE BEEN CONTACTED. THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR READING AND SHARING.]
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